this sport will kill you if you let it

on perseverance

After Primož Roglič crashed twice, dislocated his shoulder, popped it back in himself, gunned it on a teammate’s bike with two thighs obliterated by smarting road rash, failed to catch the peloton, and lost Paris-Nice, I went out for a bike ride.

I didn’t know what else to do, to be honest. I was so shocked by the day’s events, so heartbroken by what I had just witnessed, that all I could think to myself was I have to get out of the house. So I donned my birthday-gifted Jumbo-Visma cycling jacket, (because it is my only cycling jacket) a pair of bibs, helmet, socks, shoes, the whole shebang, dragged my old Bianchi steel-frame down the stairs and pedaled east towards Lake Michigan.

For me to do this was monumental.

You see, shortly after Tom Dumoulin unexpectedly walked away from cycling, I did too. I don’t know why. Prior to that, I was going to weekly training meet-ups on Zwift, doing e-racing, riding metric centuries every month, practicing cyclocross skills, among many other manners of bike-related hobby-ing. And then, I simply stopped.

All of a sudden, I couldn’t physically will myself to get on the bike, no matter how hard I tried to rationalize why such a thing would be good for me. I stopped doing Zwift workouts, stopped riding on trails with my husband, stopped corresponding with my amateur team despite signing up for and putting a down payment on training camp. Every night, I’d go in the living room and look at my Bianchi Oltre on the trainer and feel sick and unworthy of having spent my years of savings on such a thing.

It’s just too cold and snowy, I told myself. I made other excuses, too — I’m working too much, I’m tired, I’m stressed. Eventually, I realized my bike apathy was a side-effect of a recent flare-up in my life-long battle with clinical depression, and yet, instead of taking action, I simply succumbed to said battle with little resistance. I knew deep down that being on a bike would make me feel better, but that’s useless, because I didn’t want to feel better. I wanted to lay in bed and listen to The National and be sad about how I’d squandered all the progress I’d made athletically since I started riding bikes seriously last year. I’d failed, and there was no going back now, no making up for lost time.

Today was a beautiful day for cycling — both on TV in terms of the content of today’s two men’s races and literally, as in the weather outside in Chicago. I pedaled at a leisurely pace down West Warren Boulevard, watched Italianate rowhouses blend into contemporary ones, saw pretty arches peppering the princely facades of graystones, the sun granting them a fine-speckled warmth. Washington and Warren quickly merged, and together, they succumbed to the density of downtown — the glittery new baubles of the West Loop, the ubiquitous line around Goodwill, the nameless post-recession condo blocks that fill the gaps in the skyline, and then, emptying out on Randolph Street, the highlights of Chicago architecture, which I admit to still being starstruck by. It’s strange to wait for a red light to turn green in front of Aon Tower, which, it turns out, meets the street in a rather unsatisfying way.

As I made my way south-bound on the Lakefront Trail, a satisfying tailwind behind me, I thought about cycling.

Not to be shockingly lewd in my own purportedly literary-minded newsletter, but cycling loves to ruin the orgasm of narrative resolution. We come to cycling for stories of chivalry and panache and endurance and triumph above all adversity. It is a sport where its underdogs and losers are more beloved than its winners, who are also defined by their losses. Probably the only narrative theme that unites cycling’s winners and losers alike is that of perseverance, which just so happens to be the topic du jour, as we will see with today’s two examples — three, if we’re counting my own.

Still, when cycling’s narratives are disrupted — ruined, right at their climax — people get fucking angry. This was the case on the 7th stage of this year’s Paris-Nice, where Primož Roglič pipped Gino Mäder — a man early in his World Tour career and the sole survivor of the day’s initial breakaway — at the finish line, it was seen as an act that violated the archaic, unwritten rules of cycling chivalry and thus earned the Slovenian few friends even though, in reality, he did nothing wrong. (Some say that Roglič’s loss today is some kind of karmic justice for [checks notes] not gifting a stage win to someone who’s not on his own team in a race he’s trying to win, aka his job.)

Today, in a different race, Stage 5 of Tirreno Adriatico, such a thing almost happened again, too. Almost.

Mathieu van der Poel, perhaps cycling’s most mischievous and ebullient practitioner, decided, with fifty-two kilometers left to go in the stage and halfway through a snack, that he was cold. To his credit, the weather conditions on the Castelfidardo circuit were, to be frank, horrific — stormy, wet and freezing — and the parcours the men were riding on was repeatedly hilly and therefore not fun in the rain.

Other riders were content to ride back to their team cars for gilets and jackets, but Mathieu van der Poel decided that the best course of action was to instead warm himself up by attacking off the front of the peloton with half a rice cake still hanging out of his mouth. (This added insult to injury for those who could not follow.)

For dozens of kilometers, van der Poel was in his own world — in no man’s land — which is often where breakaway dreams go to die. (This is a lesson Mathieu knows well from his attempt in Kuurne Brussels Kuurne earlier in the season, where he and his breakaway compatriots were caught in the final kilometer after having ridden off the front for the majority of the race. Even then, he at least had company.)

To be in a solo breakaway is to test fate. Such a feat is rarely ever pulled off simply because cycling is a team sport and there is much more power in the pursuing peloton whose members can take comfort from the elements in each others slipstreams. Birds flock for a reason. A solo breakaway is a war of attrition against one’s own body and mind — two things one’s chasers know have to give out at some point. Most of the time, they do. It’s just statistics.

Eventually, two others would join forces in a pursuit of van der Poel — his lifelong rival Wout van Aert (whom you will remember from the Strade Bianche newsletter) and Tirreno Adriatico’s current race leader, the 22-year-old Slovenian Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, a complex character who will be discussed in greater depth at another time. In the race's penultimate lap up the circuit’s brutal climb, Tadej Pogačar attacks and drops Wout van Aert.

Wout van Aert is the ur-persevere-er. Just as we saw in Strade last week, the man never gives up. He especially can’t give up this time because he is currently second in the race’s general classification, and thus he has to stay as close in time to Tadej Pogačar as possible. However, unlike Pogačar, Wout’s not a GC guy, even though he’s going for the GC in this particular race. He doesn’t have the physique that behooves an all-rounder. Wout’s a cyclocross guy, a time triallist, a sprinter — sometimes, sometimes he can climb, but the climbs whittle him down like coarse sandpaper. By the fifth stage of this race, he’s given everything to stay on the virtual podium and, as such, he’s on his absolute limit. And yet, in pure Wout van Aert fashion, he keeps going, steadily, alone, in the liminal space between his life’s rival and now Tadej, his rival in this race, and, behind him, the rest of the bunch. He stays there the rest of the stage, finishing third.

Tadej Pogačar, despite being a rather sweet, soft-spoken man, is a monster, the consummate wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is everything Primož Roglič’s detractors loathe about Primož Roglič — tight-lipped, deadpan, and (on the bike) merciless — but he gets away with it by being young and inoffensive and easier to interview. During the 2020 Tour, in which he beat Roglič in the final time trial, Tadej was an underdog. He is one no longer, and thus, he is the decisive villain of this story. Pogačar halves van der Poel’s time advantage in the span of 10 kilometers and he halves it again in the final five, looking perfectly serene while doing it, too, as though he’s on a lovely Sunday brunch ride in the rain in Italy on a $15,000 Colnago bike.

Three kilometers to go. At the front, van der Poel’s cooked. He’s visibly on his limit, his head hung heavy between his shoulders as he powers his bike forward by means of sheer grit and willpower and momentum alone. His legs are empty. He pedals but nothing comes out, a sensation that’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it.

To be frank, he looks done for.

In the final five-hundred meters, Tadej Pogačar looms over the crest of the hill, a veritable baby-faced menace. He’s got van der Poel in his sight, and one is almost certain that Mathieu’s dreams are about to be crushed, utterly crushed by this man, just like Roglič’s before him.

But they aren’t. They aren’t because in that final stretch of barrier-flanked asphalt, Mathieu’s able to find something deep inside his soul to keep going and it has to come from there, for his body’s emptied itself of every kilojoule of energy, every molecule from which one can power motion.

When Mathieu van der Poel crosses the finish line, barely victorious, he doesn’t even have the stamina to celebrate, which is saying something because his victories are often accompanied by rather theatrical poses and expressions. He drapes himself over his handlebars, uses his last spare thought to turn off his bike computer, and pedals into the arms of his team staff, where he collapses, rolling onto the asphalt.

In the most corporeal way possible, he has persevered.

Meanwhile, in Paris-Nice, Primož Roglič has crashed, badly, with sixty-four kilometers of the race still left. He burns through his teammates like matches to try and get back into the safety of the peloton, but he doesn’t, because he crashes again in the exact same place he crashed before. In the blink of an eye, this race, one he has led almost the entire time, is over for him. The camera pans to Roglič, his bibs ripped open to show mangled, road-rashed flesh, his face a tight lined grimace of agony, and he is pedaling, out of the saddle, throwing himself forward.

The time between Roglič and the peloton stretches out until the elastic tethering him to the possibility of safety snaps. Surely by the last ten kilometers, he must know he’s been utterly defeated with no way to limit his losses, no way to make it onto the podium, or even into the top ten. And yet, Primož Roglič rides with everything, absolutely everything he can muster in his haggard, decimated state. He pushes on like this until the very end, all the way to the line.

We find out after the race that Roglič had dislocated his shoulder in his first crash, and in response, he popped it back in himself, something that is immensely, bone-chillingly painful. We also find out later that, when he crashed again, his chain dropped and in response, he simply took a teammate’s bike and kept going, helped along every so often by those who’d already been dropped by the peloton. Unfortunately, these poor souls had already exhausted themselves, and, knowing they’re useless, he passes them, each small group at a time.

As I watched this unfold on my sofa, I cried.

I didn’t cry because I was sad Roglič was losing, had lost — though I suppose that’s part of it, as I clearly admire him — but because the sight of this man, in abject physical pain refusing to submit — to fate, to self-pity, to repeated degradation; to see him relentlessly persevere in the face of total, devastating, humiliating loss reminded me of my own life’s struggles, both individual and those waged in solidarity with others. It reminded me that even when the economic and social and political systems that oppress us combine to create a world that can’t possibly be any more bleak and cruel and fucked up, we owe it to ourselves and the generations who come after us to survive, to fight for a better life and to do so with dignity; to say, this is not how things have to be, despite the fact that changing them feels utterly, desolately impossible. As insipid and weepy as this sounds, witnessing such a display of resilience made me finally reconsider my own.

This is what I thought about on my bike, tailwind to my back feeling much better than I would have if I tried to write this essay at noon rather than at five in the evening. It was a lovely bike ride — until I reached the end of the trail. At the end of the trail, a kind (and very patient) woman rode beside me. She recognized me from the internet, and we turned around and rode together and talked — about women’s cycling, about cycling burnout, about being out of shape thanks to a particularly brutal Chicago February, about the fact that none of our friends care that much about watching bike races. In the terrible headwind, I suffered, was immediately at my limit. Embarrassed by my poor form but thankful for the company, I had to stop to take a drink and get my heart rate back down. We pedaled side-by-side, albeit slowly, until my new friend had to exit onto a ramp heading into Hyde Park.

Then I was alone with the wind.

Like an idiot, I had forgotten to bring something to eat, and in the face of a 25mph headwind, I burned through all my spare calories fast. Soon, I had nothing left, nothing, absolutely nothing. I staggered and suffered, my head throbbing, my poor little rabbit heart beating way too fast in my chest, and when I looked down, the asphalt and my wheel began to blur together in the forward slurry of motion, the bike becoming unreal and foreign to me, tossed about in the sudden gusts, left to the mercy of the open lakefront. I’ve never gone so slow before, and I had the distinct sense that the only thing keeping my legs spinning was their own inertia. I’d managed to find within me enough spite to kick up the trail’s short hills only to have the release of the descent squandered by the punishing wind which ground me to a halt, denying even gravity.

I thought about quitting, but I realized I had no way out this time — I couldn’t just go lie in bed and listen to the National and feel sad. On this highway-flanked part of the trail, there was nowhere from which to catch a cab and, still miles from the city center, catching the train would mean having to finish this leg of the trail anyway. In short, I was stranded. I got off my bike, three miles from my exit, wobbling, barely able to stand. I thought to myself, in the barely-lucid throes of exhaustion, that this was an important moment in my life, that I was learning something about cycling and perhaps about the world, and so I leaned my bicycle up against a tree and took a picture of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan impossibly blue in the background.

Resigned to my fate, I remounted and willed myself forward, having nothing left but the conviction to get home by four in time for a Zoom call, the wind bludgeoning me, rendering my toes numb. Up and over up and over, I took each rotation of wheel at a time trying desperately not to think about how arduous my task was. Made half-insane by sheer exertion, my brain was a muck of Primož Roglič lost Paris-Nice in the final stage; I have never been so hungry in my life; what I wouldn’t give for one of those disgusting energy gels; actually Aqua Tower isn’t so bad looking from this far away; if I make it to Millennium Park without getting off this stupid fucking bike again, I am going to feel so good about myself; I need to pay my health insurance bill when I get home; for once in my life, I can empathize with Mathieu van der Poel, of all people, because stick a fork in me I am done.

I’ve ridden through some hellacious Chicago lakefront headwinds in my time, but this one was something else. It was like riding through molasses, an unholy and deranged condition of meteorological cruelty. However, slowly (agonizingly slowly), the meters ticked down, landmarks became familiar to me — that sign for the wildlife preserve, that pavilion, that pier— and soon, the skyline grew closer and closer, pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke. I used every last bit of what I had in me to kick myself up the little hill by Shedd Aquarium and onto the final stretch to Millennium Park, and then I was done. By the end, kids on Walmart bikes passed me by.

When I reached the crosswalk and dismounted, my limbs felt hollow, my form entirely devoid of substance, my eyes barely able register my surroundings, blurry and faded and pockmarked by iron-deficient periods of blackness. In a fog, I walked my bike to the L and, unable to go any further, I took the train home, a concession on my part. That’s not important, however.

All that matters is that, through some miracle of bodily tenacity, I had made it to the train.